Their parents were mocked for speaking it. Their grandparents were punished. But for three classes at Lost City Elementary School in Oklahoma, Cherokee is the only language spoken in the classroom. Lost City is one of the first public schools in the United States to immerse students in an American Indian language.
The program started in fall 2003 with kindergarten and classes for 3-year-olds. This year the program expanded to include first grade.
"We do what other classes do but it's all in Cherokee," says Anna Christie who teaches a combined kindergarten and first-grade class at the school. Ms. Christie talks to them in Cherokee, calling the children by their Indian names. At naptime, she tells Matthew Keener or "Yo-na" (Bear) not to put his mat too close to Lane Smith "A-wi" (Deer).
Cherokee songs play softly in the room. A Cherokee calendar hangs on the wall. Students practice writing words and numbers in Cherokee. First grader Casandra Copeland, "Ji-s-du" (Rabbit), counts aloud in Cherokee.
It's called an immersion class because the children speak nothing but Cherokee. The Cherokee Nation in nearby Tahlequah, Oklahoma creates the curriculum.
"The goal is to get them fluent," says Harry Oosahwee, the tribe's language project supervisor. "If we don't do anything about it, [the language] is not going to be here for the next generation."
It is estimated that presently fewer than 8,000 of 100,000 Cherokee people speak the language and most of them are over 45 years old.
Mr. Oosahwee, who grew up speaking Cherokee as his first language, says, "I feel fortunate that I was able to communicate with my grandparents and aunts and uncles."
Now these children can talk to their parents and grandparents.
"I can talk to my grandpa," says Matthew Keener. He is also teaching his mother to speak Cherokee.
Oosahwee says at first there was mixed feelings from the community about the program.
Some parents were excited while others were hesitant. "They didn't want the kids to experience negative reactions like they had." He can identify with that because he was mocked and ridiculed as a child for speaking his native language at public school.
But since Lost City also started a night class to teach Cherokee to Grades 5-8, staff, and parents, he says interest has started to grow. An instructor volunteers his time, and use of the school facility is free, so there is no cost to the community for the night class.
About 65 of the 100 students enrolled in the Lost City Elementary School are Cherokee. Some non-Cherokee students have opted to learn a second language and belong to the immersion classes although participation in the program is entirely voluntary.
All eight grades are exposed to Cherokee at a weekly "Rise and Shine" assembly where they begin by saying "o-si-yo" meaning hello. They discuss the Cherokee character word for the week. One week it was truthfulness or "du-yu-go-dv."
Next year immersion classes will include second graders.
Kristen Smith, who teaches the 3-year-olds, was 5 when she learned the Cherokee language from her grandparents. Her son, Lane, who is in the first grade class, comes home every day with a new word or phrase. "Now Lane and I can talk in Cherokee," she says.
Lane also teaches some Cherokee words to his 11-year-old brother, Kristian. "This is something the whole family can share," their mother says.
Fonda Fisher, Lane's great aunt, says, "He automatically responds in Cherokee. He even sings Cherokee in the shower."
She adds, "Lane is learning what it is to be Cherokee and to be proud."